Here comes Tuesday 2 November 2021, general election day this year, and there’s no stopping it.
As mentioned in the TOC football forum, we plan to be watching the Toledo game.
But we’ll check in with the election results. New Jersey’s not looking good for turning, but Virginia is a live prospect with the latest poll showing Republican Glenn Youngkin up on Democrat Terry McAuliffe 53%-45%.
…and this is us, checking in with the election in Virginia.
Checking in with the Toledo game, the Rockets are up 28-24 on Eastern Michigan at the half.
Just a couple of tweets to exhibit the weird shenanigans erupting from the final days of the Virginia campaign.
One of them has probably come to most readers’ attention already.
This little tableau purported to feature supporters of Glenn Youngkin. But at least three of the torchbearers turned out to be identified as operatives of the Virginia Democratic Party (one photographed next to a McAuliffe bus, and proclaimed to be a McAuliffe campaign staffer), and in a ridiculous twist, the “Lincoln” Project claimed credit for putting the hoax together.
That claim appeared to be an attempt to deflect criticism of Democrats taking part in a false-flag op against Youngkin.
Naturally, after that media-aided brouhaha, no one was buying the depiction Monday night of a supposed Confederate flag-festooned Youngkin supporter, at a rally in Loudoun County.
The only shot of the gnarly rallygoer – obtained from the same angle by multiple image hounds – was from the back, with the shiny new flag patch brightly lit against the evening sky on the wearer’s denim jacket.
Basically, it just made everyone on Twitter laugh. Actual journalists asked why the journos tweeting the image hadn’t interviewed the individual and determined his (her?) identity first. Others pointed out the obvious newness of the flag patch; still others pointed out that you don’t see that in Loudoun County anyway. (To my eye, the woman in the red leather jacket on the right looked more plausible, if not more typical.)
The suspicion that the journos who were lined up to get the full-dorsal shot were themselves in on another hoax could not help but intrude.
If you’re in Virginia, get your behind out and vote on Tuesday. (Now OBE.) I don’t have unrealistic expectations that Youngkin will be another Ron DeSantis, but he’d obviously be a heap-sight better than McAuliffe.
A little light geopol
Significant things are being rearranged in the Middle East. One of them is harder to discern the origin and intent of than the other, but it doesn’t appear accidental that they are occurring at the same time.
The more obscure development is the military coup in Sudan, which started on Sunday 24 October, and by Monday morning had resulted in the removal from power of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
There had been an earlier attempted coup against Hamdok on 21 September. A U.S. envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, visited Sudan about 10 days after that attempt.
The most peculiar thing about the 23-24 October coup is that mere hours before it, Feltman had been in Sudan again warning that if there were any such attack on the recognized government (i.e., that of Hamdok, which has stewardship in a power-sharing agreement until elections envisioned for 2023), the U.S. would promptly withdraw aid to Sudan.
As described in several news accounts, the U.S. delegation basically took off in its aircraft on Sunday, and the military promptly launched the coup.
Now, to my ear, the message of the U.S. envoy rang as counterproductive as it could have, if the intent was to discourage a coup against Hamdok. In essence, Feltman assured whoever might be plotting a coup that if a coup were brought off, the U.S. would get out of the way afterward.
Which seems to be what we’ve done. Hardly had Hamdok been removed from power than the State Department declared that, sure enough, U.S. aid was off the table. It’s about the most Johnny-on-the-spot thing I’ve seen the Biden administration do in foreign policy.
Decoding what’s going on is another story. Silence seems to be speaking much louder than words, as we try to parse media reporting.
To back up briefly, the just-couped interim government of Sudan came into being in 2019, following a coup against multi-decade dictator Omar al-Bashir on 11 April 2019. In the decade prior to that coup, South Sudan had split off from Sudan in 2011, and Omar al-Bashir had made a signal move in 2016 to disentangle Sudan from long-time patron Iran. Iran had for years been injecting various forms of malarkey into the Red Sea region through this relationship.
Sudan’s turn in 2016 wasn’t just away from Iran, but toward Saudi Arabia, which obviously was a strategic boon to Riyadh, as the Saudis dealt with the fast-growing problem of Houthi attacks on Saudi territory from Yemen, abetted by Iran and Hezbollah.
Khartoum’s rapprochement with the Saudis remained in effect after the 2019 coup. Not having to worry about Iran being perched in Sudan across the Red Sea has been a relief valve for the Saudis’ geostrategic situation for the last five years; indeed, other Iranian overtures in the area, including reported military concessions in Eritrea dating to 2008, appear to have dwindled in significance as well.
Iran has kept a presence in the Red Sea with a cargo ship functioning as a “mother ship” for special forces, swinging at anchor in the islands off Eritrea. But more extensive support for Iran ashore, from the littoral nations, has not been forthcoming for the last half-decade.
Meanwhile, China has been wooing Sudan in the usual manner for at least 20 years, loading Khartoum up with debt as the price of building economic infrastructure. The degree of China’s embeddedness might be most efficiently depicted through the lens of a few facts on that head.
One is that after the South Sudan split, China continued right along with hardly a missed beat ministering infrastructure to both nations – Sudan and South Sudan – in the aftermath. Interestingly, it was noted at the time, in 2011, that China deployed her first combat unit ever in a UN peacekeeping role to South Sudan. China undertook to build rail capacity for landlocked South Sudan, and continued to sell arms there. (The significance of both points is that if China built it, Sudan would think twice about inhibiting its use. Beijing would get what it was there for. Bribery, enrichment, and extortion go where Chinese-built infrastructure is implanted.)
Another illuminating fact is that, in February 2019, while Omar al-Bashir was still in power, China concluded a uranium cooperation agreement with his regime.
China has thus been there to stay, making significant, high-profile “infrastructure” moves for some time. China’s CNPC oil company discovered new oil in South Sudan in 2019.
Throw in a couple more major threads. One has to do with Sudan’s foreign debt, which is very large relative to the Sudanese economy (the debt variously given as $60 to $70 billion in early 2021). In an informative sequence of events, Saudi Arabia and Egypt stepped in in March 2021 to help alleviate Khartoum’s debt problem with a $3 billion package. One media source indicated the U.S. and Russia were partners in this package, but oddly, that wasn’t mentioned in other reporting.
Within days, the international community was weighing in to relieve Sudan’s debt problem even more and better. By the end of June, an arrangement had been made to write off about $50 billion in interest. The U.S. Treasury Department felt compelled for some reason to note that, with the debt relief in effect, 2021 would be the first year since 1975 in which Sudan wasn’t in arrears on interest payments.
The exceptional preparedness of multiple entities to cut Sudan off is arresting, to say the least.
The second major thread is maritime port improvement and usage in Sudan. There’s been something of a feeding frenzy for it since 2016. In 2014, Turkey made a grand naval tour around Africa – the first such expedition since Ottoman days – and a few years later, in 2017, obtained a contract to improve the Sudanese port at Suakin (an island at Port Sudan) and build a naval pier there. After the April 2019 coup against Bashir, Turkish state-approved media insisted the port-improvement project would continue, and there would be civilian use of the port by Turkey.
More recently, Russia reportedly made an agreement in November 2020 for a 25-year naval basing concession from Khartoum.
Iran, of course, had previously sent naval ships to visit Sudan in the early 2010s and entertained naval basing plans.
And China is improving port facilities in Sudan, efforts that including bidding for port management in Port Sudan, and newly developing the port of Haidob, south of Port Sudan.
There are thus myriad foreign interests going to and fro in Sudan, and walking up and down in it.
With these details in mind, we may consider this sequence of events. On 8 September 2021, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which administers financial aspects of U.S. sanctions, settled with the Bank of China UK (based in the UK) for $2.3 million relating to a violation of U.S. sanctions from 2014-2016.
On 18 September 2021, a media report from the Hong Kong Post was picked up by a few additional outlets, describing a case of corruption involving a Chinese infrastructure company in Sudan over the previous year. The salient portion of the story was that the government of Abdalla Hamdok raided the Chinese company, Fu Hong, in March 2021 and seized more than $1 million in cash from it. The Sudanese government’s executors also allegedly demanded $4 million in additional cash to drop the matter.
Fu Hong is said to have had connections to the old Omar al-Bashir regime going back for years. China’s long-term connections in Sudan also reportedly enrich the military elements that now oppose Hamdok and have mounted the 24 October coup.
On 21 September, the first coup attempt was made against Hamdok.
During this period, on 10 September 2021, Facebook reported that it had removed hundreds of accounts from its social media properties that were targeting audiences in Sudan and Iran with “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” (H/t: PC Magazine)
This is another arresting development in the mix. That it occurred shortly before the first coup attempt, and involved Sudan and Iran, can’t fail to be of interest.
But perhaps of most interest are the varied silences of media outlets on this readily accessible history in the aftermath of the 24 October coup. As interesting at the silences are the affirmative emphases of some outlets.
NBC, for example, managed to write a summary without referring to China, Sudanese debt, or Iran at all.
The BBC did mention Sudan’s debt issues, but made no mention of China or Iran. BBC did, however, add an emphasis repeated by a number of outlets, associating Saudi Arabia with the military coup plotters. In BBC’s case, the Sudanese military’s gambit is specifically likened to the military’s role in the 2013 takeover of Egypt by Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was ousted.
CNBC likewise ignored China and Iran completely, while (briefly) mentioning Saudi Arabia’s contribution to Sudanese debt relief. As noted above, the CNBC report also indicated the U.S. and Russia (along with Israel) were participants in the Saudi-sponsored debt relief deal.
Perhaps most interestingly, think tank commentary has also failed to illuminate essential context. The Atlantic Council, in an article seeking to contextualize the coup, gave brief mention to Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, the Saudis, Egypt, and the UAE as outside nations with involvement in Sudan. It even made a point of Biden administration concern as to whether the Gulf states had “given a nod” to the Sudanese military’s move.
But China isn’t mentioned at all, and the only reference to Iran is unrelated to Sudan-Iran relations. It’s a comparison to the terrorist designation of Iran’s IRGC, as a potential response by the U.S. to the 24 October coup (i.e., designating Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces).
The most interest of all may lie with the assessment of the International Crisis Group, the think tank from which Iran envoy Rob Malley came (he’s one of the founders). China and Iran are not mentioned at all in the ICG treatment. And even the word “Saudi” is missing. The ICG article refers a couple of times only to “the Gulf monarchies and Egypt.” It’s not clear what purpose this coy phrasing serves.
For comparison, the Soros-founded European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), writing on Sudan in June 2020, referred not once to either China or Iran, but highlighted a Saudi role in Sudan numerous times, including the allegation that the Saudis were positioning a paramilitary leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemedti) to be Sudan’s “next ruler.” Saudi Arabia was intimated to be a source of “dark money” interfering in Sudanese affairs.
One more point: a number of news outlets (see samples in the links above) referred to phone calls erupting between regional nations and Sudan during the 23-24 October coup, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.
But not a single Western media report could I find pointing out that the foreign ministries of China and Sudan held a consultation as well on 24 October.
There’s a lot left to parse out from the coup in Sudan. I don’t think we can see the half of what’s actually going on. The Biden administration has said several times that it’s extremely important to undo the coup and restore the transitional government to power. But the administration doesn’t seem to actually be doing anything, other than withdrawing U.S. aid. The withdrawal of U.S. aid is not an incentive for a military junta to change its course; the junta would never have expected to benefit from U.S. aid anyway.
The whole situation is opaque, and it’s awful darn peculiar – similar to the situation in Myanmar/Burma – that no one in the West utters the syllables “China” at all, when there is a clear Chinese interest in the matter.
This week, the Jerusalem Post is reporting that Mossad was in Sudan at the time of the coup, conferring with members of the Sudanese military. The gist of the story is that outside entities like Mossad may have a preference for the paramilitary leader Hemedti over coup leader General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan.
Load ‘er up. We’ve got miles to go before we figure this one out. Sudan’s strategic position on the Red Sea chokepoint nexus means we’ll care.
After the context, the chaser
This update will be practically nonexistent, compared to the Sudan survey. It consists of this brief but extraordinarily significant observation: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain have all recalled their ambassadors from Lebanon and expelled Beirut’s envoys.
Make no mistake, as a former POTUS-in-Chief used to say. The timing of this is connected to the coup in Sudan. The move itself is about Iran and Hezbollah. The capitals of the Gulf signatories to the Abraham Accords (Kuwait is not a signatory, yet) are demonstrating that they’re prepared to stop propping up the fiction that the government of Lebanon is not a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hezbollah, Inc. and Tehran. Hezbollah runs Lebanon, everyone knows it, and by shipping diplomats home, the Gulf nations are divesting from a long-term U.S. policy that for years has propped up precisely the fiction of an independent Lebanese government.
The Abraham Accords made this possible. A key reason is that making prior consultation with Israel a routine matter gives the Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis – Accords parties – a reliable set of expectations about what Israel’s posture will be. That enlarges the horizon of the kind of geopolitical initiatives that can be undertaken.
There’s no guarantee as to how this will play out, but it does highlight something important. As I said above, and will say again, the Gulf nations are divesting from U.S. policy in Lebanon. Recognizing that leads to recognizing that U.S. policy is neither driving nor setting boundaries on what can happen in Sudan.
Some of the civil society folks in the West seem a bit slow on the uptake in this regard, but it would be as well to take it on board now. It’s quite clear at this point that Joe Biden is not in charge of U.S. policy. We don’t have a ready framework in which to talk about geopolitics without a credible U.S. hegemon, but that’s the situation we’ve got. This party is just getting started.
A bad day in the South China Sea
One last tag for this ready room brief. The U.S. Navy has announced that it thinks USS Connecticut (SSN-22), the Seawolf-class submarine that suffered a collision on 2 October, hit an uncharted seamount in that regrettable episode. The Navy statement described the sub as “grounding on” the seamount, indicating an impact point on or near the bottom of the hull.
We have no way of disputing this statement, and there’s little point in further speculation, at least for now. I note that in the long run, there would be no excuse for keeping the location of the seamount a permanent secret, so if the Navy conclusion is accurate, there should be a chart update forthcoming (perhaps someone who keeps up on these things can let us know if it’s been registered already).
As mentioned in my previous article, the U.S. Geological Survey should also have an opinion, if a seamount has popped up in the reasonably well-charted South China Sea.
Photos of Connecticut in Guam, after her arrival there six days after the collision, showed rips and gashes in the lower forward portion of the sail. Assuming it was actually the hull that suffered the major collision with the seamount – in a collision that reportedly damaged the ballast tanks – it would seem that the point of contact was lower than the sail, and probably forward of it. Perhaps the contact occurred on either the starboard (apparently more likely) or port side, with jagged, protruding elements of the seamount having a “ripping” or “tearing” effect on the leading edge of the sail.
If the impact was more bow-on, it would be harder to account for the gashes on the sail.
Neither kind of hull impact was apparent above the waterline in the photos from Guam. My guess is that we won’t see much more about this, with the Navy having decided Connecticut did not collide with another marine vessel. In the absence of such a concern, the urgency of publicizing anything more goes away.
Feature image: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Felix Garza Jr. (Via Wikimedia Commons)